Asia Pacific Cultural Quagmire 

Struggle over the Oakland Asian Cultural Center sheds light on the generational conflicts within Asian Oakland

The boldly colored prints and paintings hung carefully on the walls. It had been many months since any art was displayed at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, and a crowd turned out for the January 17 opening. True to the notion that one attends art openings not to see but to be seen, no one stood in the hallway to gaze at the artwork. Instead, everyone gathered in the auditorium to chat and nibble on dim sum.

The exhibition of Taiwanese printmaker Liao Shiou-Ping's work marked the unofficial reopening of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center after a passionate tug-of-war between the center's staff and more entrenched Chinatown interests forced its closing last summer. It was an abrupt end for the institution that once had served as the city's single-most-visible expression of Chinese political power.

The city, which had provided free rent and funds to the center, took over in August, passing the responsibility for day-to-day operations first to its Community and Economic Development Agency, then to the Oakland Museum. At the opening, Councilmembers Henry Chang and Danny Wan shared their thoughts about the center's future with the audience, which included museum head Dennis Power and members of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. Visibly absent were the former center employees who had worked hardest to turn the center into a real arts mecca.

The cultural center grew out of the vision of the late Rev. Frank Mar, pastor of the Oakland Chinese Presbyterian Church from 1964 to 1984, who worried that young Asian Americans were losing touch with their backgrounds. In the 1960s, Oakland rebuilt its downtown, taking chunks out of Chinatown for the Nimitz Freeway, BART, and Laney College. Mar and other Chinatown activists lobbied the city to include a cultural center, library, and affordable housing in its redevelopment. Stricken with cancer, he died before his dream came true.

The Oakland Asian Cultural Center opened in the Pacific Renaissance Plaza at 9th Street and Webster in 1996. With an auditorium covering more than 2,500 square feet, six conference rooms, and an industrial kitchen, the center earned bragging rights to having the nicest space of any Asian culture center in the country.

But the center has been plagued by financial woes and weak leadership ever since it opened its glass doors. In five years, it went through seven directors. Money disappeared. The board of directors held meetings devoid of parliamentary procedure that more closely resembled family powwows, said onetime board member Sonny Le. It didn't fund-raise sufficiently and responded to problems by zealously firing its staff.

"It's a beautiful space, so it tends to attract people with status seeking board membership who don't know anything about nonprofits," said Francis Wong, who resigned as director last May.

The center also came under fire repeatedly for a lack of diversity. Though its name proclaims the center a place for all Asian Americans, it was mostly Chinese Americans who fought for the center during redevelopment and mostly Chinese Americans who used the space at first. During the first years of its life, the center resembled a conference hall for Chinatown businesses and political fund-raisers more than a place of arts and culture.

While some community groups couldn't afford the fees for booking rooms, certain businesspeople enjoyed free use of the facilities from close pals at the center. Community nonprofits and art groups representing various ethnic backgrounds complained mightily to the city, and in 1999 the center entered into an agreement with the city to receive $60,000 a year in community access funds that nonprofit groups could apply for and use toward renting space at the center.

Operations appeared to take a turn for the better in August 2000, when a new management team came on board. Wong, a respected jazz musician who has headed arts organizations, and Jolie Bales, a former Wall Street lawyer, took the helm of the struggling group and succeeding in raising the center's profile. They hired a dedicated staff to program events and worked with other arts organizations. Soon, the center offered not only traditional fare such as Cantonese opera and brush-painting classes, but world-class jazz concerts, hip-hop shows, and spoken-word performances. The center also became home to a citywide program for some 200 high-school students.

But the center neglected to raise its profile in one crucial place: Oakland's Chinatown. Neither Wong nor Bales hailed from Oakland, and though the pair shared leadership responsibility, Bales was perceived as running the show, which raised the question of why a white woman led an Asian culture center. A generation rift formed: As the center became better-known in arts circles, it grew increasingly disconnected from the older activists who had pushed for its creation. Chinatown leaders say the center didn't include them in its plans or market directly to the Chinese-American community. Staff members say older folks didn't show interest in the programming and thought of "culture" as something from the past, not something to create anew in the present. The flashpoint came in March when the center announced its new name, Asia Pacific Cultural Center-Oakland, to reflect its inclusion of Pacific Islanders.


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